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In October 2013, Aboriginal community planner and artist Kamala Todd challenged 1,300 Edmontonians and an online audience across the country to indigenize our urban eyes.

At the national Designing Downtown event, Kamala forever changed the lens through which we see Canadian cities. She took us on a tour of her own city, Vancouver, during a Pecha Kucha presentation that resulted in an audience member placing flower petals at her feet. Kamala removed the blinders to reveal the history, the depth, the truth, the loss, the beauty, and the possibilities of place. She reminded us that all Canadian cities are Indigenous cities.

Kamala is part of a broader global movement of people exploring how Indigeneity is and can be expressed in urban landscapes through planning, architecture, design, space, art, wayfinding (signs for getting around), placenaming (naming places), and placemaking (reimagining public spaces).

Movements do not have leaders or members. They do not have a strategic plan. Movements are collections of people and ideas and forces that collide and collaborate and move, ebbing and flowing over time, but always alive. Once a seed is planted, it’s planted. Through blog posts, thought dinners, articles, and events, and our attempts to learn and work together in different ways, we are each nurturing and growing this movement. You are the movement when you take interest, when you engage.

This urban movement has no origins, really. Credit in Edmonton must go to Kamala’s cousin, Zoe Todd, who opened the Edmonton creative community’s eyes to the lacuna of Indigenous expression in our city. She wrote:

“I’m not convinced that the stories we currently tell about ourselves through our buildings and our place names reflect the full story of who we are as Edmontonians. I also think there is space to incorporate Aboriginality into the design and building of our city–through innovative design that celebrates our unique geographic and historical realities.”

Here’s one blog post that woke us up. There are many more. If this topic interests you, then I highly recommend that you read Zoe’s blog and follow her on all of the social media platforms.

A Tribe Called Red prompted my interest in Canada’s “urban Aboriginal cultural renaissance” in a radio interview years ago, but my urban eyes were fully indigenized in 2011 when I was working with Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society and Boyle Street Community Services on two proposals for innovative services unique to Edmonton – one was for the New in Town Aboriginal Welcome Service and the other for Kahkiyaw, a children and families services model. While conducting deep research and having honest conversations about the urban Aboriginal past and present in Edmonton and other cities, and, with these organizations, envisioning a different future, I began to see cities differently.

Questions arose as we worked together: “Where are the place names, the buildings, the gathering places that celebrate Aboriginal cultures and languages and heroes, and the plaques and apps that tell the Indigenous stories of this place? Why are these markers important? How can they welcome, inspire, educate, and thwart discrimination? Who makes our city and what could co-creation through design and policy look like? What are other cities doing on this front?”

We talked of cultural suppression, discrimination, indifference, and also celebration, mounting pride, and increased interest.

And we had some fun. Knowing that Frank Oliver had it in for Aboriginal people, we renamed Oliver Park, Kahkiyaw “all people, especially traditional peoples, are related” Park.
Kahkiyaw Park

And because the aforementioned initiatives would mean new hires and new space requirements, I visited Toronto and brought back pictures of the coveted Native Child and Family Services building, with its rooftop sweat lodge downtown and award-winning multipurpose long-house. We vowed to hold on to the vision for such a building (or buildings!) in Edmonton one day.

Rooftop Sweat Lodge

As we delved deeper, we felt like a sea change was about to occur. And it did. Idle No More rocked the country a year later.

Around this moment in Canada and our city’s histories, Media, Architecture, Design, Edmonton (MADE) held a historic Indigenous Architecture, Design, and Space lecture series, a first in Canada. Manasc Isaac hosted The Frist Nations Sustainable Communities and Buildings Conference. Both were platforms for discussion and instigation. The idea for an Aboriginal Quarter was introduced to spur creative thinking, which led to a design charrette with 150 people and the idea to instead map and create Aboriginal Hubs (gathering places and points of interest). The Spirit of Edmonton initiative is a prime example of how this can happen in Edmonton. And it should happen, not just in the river valley, but throughout the city.

Things are happening. I travel the country learning and sharing and connecting. I take pictures of tree grates in Saskatoon done in collaboration with Saskatchewan Elders, points of interest on the First Story bus tour of the Indigenous History of Toronto, the Skwachays Lodge Hotel and Gallery in Vancouver with its totem pole up the front, the Aboriginal hub Neechi Commons in Winnipeg, and directional signs at the University of Manitoba that point to First Nations communities throughout the province. I even noticed a medicine wheel recently on a promenade in Oakland, California and snapped a shot. On these tours, I meet the most incredible people who are actively shaping their cities to be inclusive and true representations of their indigenous peoples and their communities.

Tree grate in Saskatoon

Tree grates in Saskatoon depict designs and stories by Elders.

Skwachays Lodge, Vancouver

Skwachays Lodge Hotel & Gallery on Pender in Vancouver.

Bent tree in High Park

Tree in High Park, Toronto, bent hundreds of years ago to serve as a marker for tribes to meet (via First Story tours).

Aboriginal Students Association Building at the University of Manitoba

Directional signage at the Aboriginal Students Association Building at the University of Manitoba showing where First Nations Communities are and how far they are located.

Sidewalk medicine wheel Medicine wheel spotted on promenade in Oakland, California.

These and other pictures are available on Facebook at Progress Unlimited, but will soon be added to a new page for Edmonton’s Indigenous City Building Working Group. Stay tuned. Even join us.

This is an exciting time. There is a grassroots groundswell in Edmonton right now as the city’s landscape transforms, especially in its downtown, and we strive, at community and government levels, to be a city of genuine truth and reconciliation. There is a window of opportunity. Edmonton was featured last month in Toronto’s Spacing Magazine for its attempts to affect real change with respect to urban design, and the City announced the naming of a park after Canada’s first Aboriginal police officer, Alex Decoteau. As recent events at Oxford Properties and CBC studies highlight, there is still much work to be done capitalize on this moment in time, but there is progress.

Project ideas and passionate people are popping up everywhere. Here are a few that I know about, some are further along than others. There are many more. Please help us to build this list by emailing me!

  • Spirit of Edmonton
  • An Indigenous City Building Working Group blog and interactive map of the city
  • Bus tour of the Indigenous histories of Edmonton
  • Enterprise Edmonton and Aksis (Edmonton’s Aboriginal Business and Professional Association) are mapping Edmonton and Area businesses and best practices in Aboriginal HR and engagement
  • City of Edmonton’s Municipal Aboriginal Framework
  • Establishment of Edmonton’s first Aboriginal artists run contemporary art centre
  • Wayfinding Edmonton and Enterprise Edmonton to host an Indigenous Wayfinding talk in 2015
  • Edmonton Arts Council Aboriginal engagement strategy and upcoming events
  • Tour of the Prairies – a spring tour to Saskatoon and Winnipeg
  • Shaw Conference Centre Aboriginal Medicine Wheel Garden and enhanced Aboriginal gathering place strategy
  • The City as Museum Project including Indigenous people and stories in its mapping
  • Art galleries featuring Indigenous artists
  • Enterprise Edmonton working with partners to bring the Arctic Adaptations exhibition and an Indigneous architecture show, currently exhibited at the Urban Shaman Gallery, to Edmonton in 2015

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